As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a three-day official visit to Lithuania on Thursday, two leading experts on the Holocaust urged him to speak out against the continued distortion in the Baltic region of the Nazi slaughter of the Jews — including the whitewashing of local Nazi collaborators, and the politically-driven comparison of German atrocities with abuses committed by the Soviet authorities.
Abraham Foxman, the national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, and the head of an antisemitism study program at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, told The Algemeiner on Thursday that it was important for the Israeli prime minister “to visit Lithuania and meet with the leadership of the Baltic states.”
“He needs to use this occasion to speak out against the way the current governments are rewriting the history of the Shoah,” Foxman said.
Foxman — who survived the Holocaust when, as a child, he was hidden by his Catholic nanny in Vilna, now the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius — spoke of his concern that in the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, “they are engaged in a moral equivalency of comparing the crimes of the Holocaust to the crimes of Communism — building museums comparing both, as well as erasing the collaboration of their citizens with the Nazis.”
Sandwiched on the coast of the Baltic Sea between Russia to the east and Poland and Belarus to the west and south, all three countries emerged from more than fifty years of Communist rule as members of both NATO and the European Union.
Netanyahu — who regards the countries as trusty diplomatic allies within the contentious framework of the EU’s Middle East policies — spoke proudly on Thursday of being first Israeli prime minister to be “invited to the Baltic countries’ summit.”
The invitation reflected Israel’s “increased standing in the world,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu added that a trip carried a significant “personal aspect” for him. “My late father and mother’s family came from Lithuania at the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century,” he said. “I will also touch on that on this visit.”
Among the items of Jewish interest on Netanyahu’s agenda are a visit to a synagogue in Vilnius — a historically Jewish city once dubbed “the Jerusalem of the north” — and a tribute at the monument to the victims of the mass killings in Ponary, a suburb of the capital. A total of 70,000 Jews were murdered by the German SS and their Lithuanian collaborators at Ponary, one of several killing centers used by the Nazis in the area of Vilnius.
A full 95 percent of Lithuania’s 220,000 Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, along with 77 percent of Latvia’s and 35 percent of Estonia’s smaller Jewish communities.
Having faced criticism for adopting what several leading Holocaust scholars criticized as an overly-conciliatory stance on Poland’s recently-passed controversial IPN Act, Netanyahu will have the opportunity to raise the distortion of Holocaust history in the Baltic countries at meetings with Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskait, Latvian Prime Minister Mris Kučinskis and Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.
“The Israeli prime minister can do a world of good by politely bringing up three issues with his hosts in the Lithuanian government,” said Prof. Dovid Katz, an expert on Yiddish culture and Jewish history in Eastern Europe currently teaching at Gediminas Technical University in Vilnius.
Katz told The Algemeiner that the first of Netanyahu’s requests should be “to ask for written apologies for three Israeli citizens, Yitzhak Arad, and the late Rachel Margolis and Joseph Melamed” — three Lithuanian Jewish heroes of the partisan struggle against the Nazis who later served in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. All three, Katz said, had been “painfully defamed for posterity by Lithuanian prosecutors,” who falsely accused them of having participated in Soviet crimes against humanity.
Secondly, Katz continued, Netanyahu should “ask for the rapid reversal of the state policy of honoring Holocaust collaborators with street names and plaques.”
Earlier this month, Lithuanian Jewish leaders were among those protesting the government’s decision to honor Second World War resistance fighter Jonas Noreika with a commemorative plaque in Vilnius. According to research by his own granddaughter, journalist Silvia Foti, Noreika was “a brutal collaborator” who assisted the Nazis in the murder of thousands of Jews.
“We are asking for the plaque to Noreika to be taken down before the Lithuanian Day of Remembrance of Jewish Victims of Genocide on September 23,” an Aug. 3 statement from the Jewish community said.
Finally, Katz urged Netanyahu to encourage his Lithuanian counterpart “to move the new national convention center project away from the old Vilna Jewish cemetery so that the cemetery could be restored.”
Pointing out that the cemetery contains the graves of at least two major rabbinical scholars, Katz remarked that “a convention center complex would never be sited on a 500-year-old cemetery home to the remains of Lithuanian heroes and scholars.”
Netanyahu, Katz said, had a “magnificent opportunity” before him during his time in Lithuania.
“By standing up against the wholesale rewriting of history — including the state-sponsored effort to turn Holocaust collaborators into publicly honored ‘heroes’ — and by calling for the old Jewish cemetery, where some of his own ancestors lie buried, to be respected, [Netanyahu] will be demonstrating that Israel can have the best relations with East European countries without betraying its citizens, the truth of history and the Holocaust, or loyalty to elementary Jewish causes,” Katz declared.